“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics!” Mark Twain accused 19th century politicians of this, just as Disraeli accused 19th British parliamentarians. There is not much new under the sun. It might, however, have grown worse.
We live in an age when Trust has been threatened at almost every level of our existence. We have been lied to by our governments, churches, employers, unions, lawyers, drug companies, the military, media, family members, and the people next door. We have grown cynical; but, as Voltaire famously said: “Cynicism is betrayed Idealism.”
This is partly due to the fact that we know more about what’s going on topside, and around the world, than ever before in human history. We have a 24 hour news cycle, social media, whistle blowers galore, and the ability to fact check almost anybody and anything we take the time to Google. As new technologies bring us more information, and new techniques to check out that information, the situation will become more intense. We run the risk of sensory overload.
It is a bad time to tell each other outright lies. First, because it’s wrong. Second, because we’ll get caught. But as we have seen in the recent political debates, one does not have to tell outright lies. One can misrepresent an issue by simply massaging, or “spinning” it, to achieve the intended purpose. It can also be done by telling the truth, but only that part of the truth which supports a position. I’m reminded of the old saw: “Statistics don’t lie, but if you present them properly, it’s almost as good.”
For openers, it really helps to have a competent and devoted staff. These people can sift through hours of taped speeches, transcripts and interviews, looking for the slip or error that can used to raise questions in the public’s mind. Everything anybody says, writes, and does is on record somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
As I watched the recent political debates, I jotted down several ways that someone can gain an edge, and how the truth can be manipulated to serve one’s purpose:
1. Quote out of context: This is the most common effort to deceive. You just take one isolated phrase or sentence, regardless of the language and intent surrounding it, and quote it to make your point. Suppose I was a candidate and I said: “There’s no reason for me to be a citizen if I can’t vote, exercise my God-given freedoms, and support the Constitution.”
You might report: “Candidate renounces America saying, ‘There’s no reason for me to be a citizen…'”
Or, you might try a teaser line: “‘There’s no reason for me to be a citizen.’ Did candidate renounce America?”
2. Pick the most favorable study: We all know that God made too many MBAs, and there’s not enough useful work for them to do. So, they find work like annoying people at home during the dinner hour conducting public opinion polls. Suppose they asked someone: “Will you vote for Senator Blitz?” And the correspondent replied: “I’ll vote for Senator Blitz when it snows in July.” Given the anti-Blitz organization the pollster might be working for, they could record that answer as: “I’ll vote for Senator Blitz….”
You can find all sorts of such biased survey efforts on-line and on YouTube. I recently saw two well made videos which proved conclusively that a certain presidential candidate is “The Anti-Christ” (supported by Biblical prophecy no less; taken out of context naturally). There was another video on there proving, also conclusively, that this same candidate was really Osama Bin Laden, who had faked his own death and was now vying for the Oval Office). As they say: “Really?”
You just find the survey that you like on-line, the one that plays to your own fantasies, opinions and biases, and quote it loud and often.
3. Take a new view of the statistics, or rebut them with anecdotal evidence. Let’s say I’m mayor of a city of 50,000 people, and that due to my administration’s efforts, 99% of the adult citizenry is employed, housed, cared for, and well fed. I’m untouchable, right? Not at all. You just show a picture of one hard luck family and say (truthfully): “Over 500 families in our city, our friends, and neighbors, are going to bed hungry and cold tonight.” That 1% who are below the line might well do me in.
4. Make stuff up. I read somewhere that over 92% of all statistics quoted in presentations, debates, and arguments are made up on the spot. I just made that up, but the point is valid. Why would someone do that? To prove a point or win an argument, knowing that somehow their “win” tonight may be headline news tomorrow, while the later correction next week may appear on page 6.
Think the statistic through. What if I told you that 50% of all marriages end in divorce but, worse yet, the other 50% end in death?
5.There is a dark side to everything. Find it. Emphasize the downside. When it comes to your record, Point with Pride. When it comes to your opponent’s record, View with Alarm. Remember the joke about how Jesus’ enemies reported His walking on the Sea of Galilee: “Alleged Savior Can’t Swim!”
6. Take umbrage at accusations you cannot answer. Drawing oneself up in a dignified way and responding: “That you would say something like that about my staff and supporters, family and friends, and the American public, is offensive and indefensible. I won’t dignify that with an answer.”
7. Create a Strawman: Exaggerate your opponent’s position on some controversial issue, and then attack your own creation. Let’s say your opponent favors a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens. One might say: “My opponent supports illegal immigration. Maybe he thinks we should just throw open the borders and let everyone come here. Maybe he thinks it’s fair to punish the legitimate immigrants who have followed our laws and tried to come here in a responsible and fair way. What happens if everybody comes here as they please? There will be no jobs, more crime, overcrowded cities, and you won’t be able to complain about it because no one speaks English!”
8. Attack the speaker: If you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger: “Isn’t that typical of a man who moved to Canada to escape serving his county? A self-proclaimed intellectual who flunked out of college? A “family values” man, with 3 failed marriages behind him?”
9. Go for the one-liner: People love a crushing line, especially one that seems spontaneous: Lloyd Bentsen’s, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” is a classic example. As was Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” Don’t overdo it. Such lines are a rich spice and cannot be overused, but having a few in reserve never hurts.
10. Finally, wrap yourself in the flag, faith and family. Back in the Fifties, they used to say: “Support Mom, Apple Pie, and the Flag. Viciously attack the Killer Shark.” Thank everybody in sight. Remember to honor “those who serve.” Toast freedom, opportunity, and remind everyone to keep God and Country first in their hearts and minds.
Smile, look confidant (as though you’ve won), and stay on for a bit to press the flesh. Then go home and get out a news release heralding your victory: After all, you won.